Duce doesn’t want your sympathy.
He’s used to roadblocks. He’s always slipped past them or run them over.
Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley interviewed for two offensive-coordinator jobs this offseason. Both went to NFL legacy candidates. That might seem unfair, but Duce doesn’t care.
“If there are people out there that feel that way, tell them not to,” Staley said. “My dad told me, ‘Never count who’s in line. Because you may be in line, and the five or six people in front of you – something might happen where they have to leave the line. And the next thing you know, you’re next. Be ready.”
Staley’s ready, whether it’s in the NFL or the NCAA. He wants to be a head coach. He knows that the best route to the top is serving as an OC. But in a quarterback-crazy league, it’s tough to sell yourself as a guy who can handle passers when you played running back your whole life and when you’ve coached only running backs.
This conversation occurred a month ago, in a light drizzle outside the players’ entrance of the NovaCare Complex. Staley had just spent 30 minutes speaking with reporters in an offseason interview session, an NFL-mandated availability geared to letting otherwise voiceless position coaches display their ability to handle the press. Staley spent most of his session discussing how he might be better prepared the next time he is considered for an OC job.
He was not always a cooperative subject. He often demanded that reporters clarify the context of a question. Call him cautious or confrontational. He won’t care. He knows he’s at the head of a short line now. He cannot afford to have any of his answers skewed out of context.
That’s because Staley is black. Like it or not, race plays a role here, and the league recognizes that. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at the Super Bowl (again) that the league needs more African American offensive coordinators to put black coaches in the pipeline to be head coaches. About 70 percent of NFL players are black, but only 22 percent of NFL head coaches – seven of 32 – are black. That’s the same number as in 2006, when Goodell became commissioner, which was three years after the Rooney Rule was adopted to expose owners to candidates of color.
Staley can do the math. He realizes he might have to change the line he’s in. If he remains untapped in the NFL, would he consider coaching in college?
“Who knows? That’s actually a great question,” Staley said, ignoring the rain on his face. “Who knows how that works, and which way to go with that?”
Actually, the math favors him less in the NCAA than it does in the NFL. There will be 12 black head coaches among the 129 FBS (Division I-A) programs, or 9.3 percent. Two of them – Lovie Smith at Illinois and Herm Edwards at Arizona State – are former NFL head coaches.
That’s why, this winter, plenty of people rooted for Staley to land an OC job. He’d spent eight years as an Eagles assistant, none better than 2017, when he deftly managed the complicated running-back corps during the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship run.
Staley earned interviews with head coaches who have known him for almost 20 years. Eagles coach Doug Pederson, Staley’s former teammate and fellow assistant and current boss, chose receivers coach Mike Groh. Pederson gave Staley the title of assistant head coach, but Groh remains above Staley on the coaching roster.
Giants head coach Pat Shurmur, an Eagles assistant when Staley was a player, a fellow position coach when Staley started coaching, and Staley’s boss as offensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014, chose Mike Shula.
Shula is the son of Hall of Fame NFL coach Don Shula. Groh is the son of former NFL coach Al Groh, who was the Jets’ head coach in 2000. As young coaches, both Groh and Shula worked on their fathers’ staffs. Both have coached to some distinction, but let’s face it: Sometimes it’s not just whom you know, but whom you spend Christmas with.
Usually, Staley believes, it’s waiting and working.
“Crazy league. Crazy situations. You talk about being at the right place at the right time,” Staley said. “Sometimes things are slotted, and they may not be slotted for you. Sometimes something may just pop up on you.”
That’s what happened to Anthony Lynn, who profited from the insanity that follows Buddy Ryan & Sons. Lynn followed fired Jets coach Rex Ryan to Buffalo in 2015 as his running-backs coach. Two games into the 2016 season, Lynn was promoted to offensive coordinator/assistant head coach when Ryan fired Greg Roman. Lynn then became head coach when the Bills fired Ryan with one game to play. The Chargers hired Lynn as head coach in 2017.
“Look at Anthony Lynn,” Staley said. “Boom, next thing you know, head coach.”
Staley hopes to follow a less turbulent path, like former Eagles teammate Eric Bieniemy. He spent 10 seasons as an NFL running-backs coach before Chiefs coach Andy Reid promoted him to OC in January. But Bieniemy not only has more NFL experience than Staley, but he also coached seven seasons in college – two of them as Colorado’s OC.
Becoming a college OC might be Staley’s only route to the top. Despite the success of, say, Bill Belichick — a college center with a coaching concentration in defense — NFL coaches and owners have become ever more obsessed with former quarterbacks running their offenses and their teams.
Obstacles such as that have never deterred Duce. High school was a struggle, poor SAT scores sent him to community college, and he was only a third-round pick out of South Carolina. But only four Eagles backs have run for more yards in their careers, and he won his first Super Bowl ring with the Steelers after the 2005 season. For the moment, he’s focused on winning his third.
“I’m not worried about being a coordinator. I’m worried about being able to be out there and coach for another Super Bowl,” he said. “That’s where I’m at right now. Everything else will handle itself.”